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Saturday, September 23, 2023 — Houston, TX

Acquired Reading: A look into the lives and libraries of Rice’s faculty

Illustrated by Chloe Xu

By Anna Ta     4/21/20 3:40pm

Just as Rice students have found new ways to cope amid the general chaos, our professors have found themselves in the same unprecedented moment in history finding ways to muscle through their daily tasks: conducting research, teaching courses and attending to any children in need of attention.

We asked professors from across departments and disciplines what they’ve been reading to hopefully give you some recommendations of new ways to occupy your time, but inadvertently, what we’ve created instead is a portrait of what life looks like right now on the other side of the gradebook.

I extend my gratitude to all of the professors who have participated in this project for their time and candidness during this time.

EDEN KING, professor of industrial-organizational psychology

“With everything going on, I haven’t had the time and space to read anything beyond my students’ work, the New York Times and NPR. 

Okay, and last night I read ‘Pinkalicious,’ ‘Penny and Her Doll,’ and ‘The Paper Bag Princess’ with my 4-year-old, and part of ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ with my 9-year-old. For me, this is what life is like right now — a combination of stress and snuggles, trying to be a good mom and a good professor at the same time.”

LUJÁN STASEVICIUS, lecturer in Spanish 

“Just last night I finished ‘Six Memos for the Next Millennium,’ by Italian author Italo Calvino. What drew me to it was that I remembered reading it when I was an undergrad, but couldn't recall almost any of it, and thought maybe there was something there to help us all deal with what is going on. It was written in 1985 for a series of talks at Harvard that ended up not happening because [Calvino] died before being able to give them. Just spending hours reading someone who was so in love with literature and the future was refreshing and somewhat soothing. 

Regarding fiction, I know many people are reading or watching works related to infections or pandemics, but I find myself reading about alternative realities, meaning other time[lines] where for some reason everything is not what it’s supposed to be. ‘Running with Scissors,’ by Augusten Burroughs, was the first I read in quarantine for instance, since almost nobody has had his childhood or his coping skills. 

Right now I am also in the middle of ‘L'enfant Prodige, by Iréne Némirovsky, and it is mesmerizingly beautiful, the kind of escape we might need after watching the news. I would recommend, on that last point, also ‘Embers, by Hungarian writer Sándor Márai.”

ALEXANDER BYRD, associate dean of humanities for undergraduate programs and special projects, associate professor of history

“I’m reading the Book of Job. Right now, I’m struck by the way that it captures (and critiques) the inclination to blame the misfortunate for their misfortunes. Truth be told, though, I’m doing more stress eating (especially chocolate covered things) than reading.”

CALEB MCDANIEL, associate professor of history

“I’m currently reading ‘The Resisters,’ a new novel by Gish Jen. It’s set in a dystopian near-future America of rising sea levels, drone automation, even greater inequality and ubiquitous surveillance by Aunt Nettie, a terrifying mashup of Alexa/Siri and Google/Facebook that feels straight out of a Kubrick movie. But the wonderful family at the center of the novel fights back against Aunt Nettie by forming, of all things, an underground baseball league.

I just finished Amor Towles’ ‘A Gentleman in Moscow,’ a historical novel featuring a Russian count who is sentenced by the Bolsheviks to spend the rest of his days living inside a Moscow hotel. 

These may seem like odd reading choices in our present crisis. But I’m drawn to and ultimately comforted by fictional characters who hold on to their humanity and the joys of life even in extreme circumstances. I find the same consolation in the poetry of Christian Wiman, who just released a new collection called ‘Survival is a Style.’ I’ve been thumbing through that, too, as well as his edited collection of other people’s poems called ‘Joy.’ It includes, among other gems, the poem ‘Small Moth,’ by Sarah Lindsay.” 

REGINALD DESROCHES, incoming provost, dean of engineering, professor of civil and environmental engineering and mechanical engineering

“Unfortunately, it has been several months (well before the COVID-19 crisis) since I had a chance to read for pleasure. I keep up with reading research papers in earthquake engineering, but these are mainly papers that my students and I are submitting to journals. Pretty much all of my reading now consists of reading about how the COVID-19 is impacting our nation and world, and how it will impact higher education. I typically read the New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Education.”

RAY SIMAR, professor in the practice, electrical and computational engineering

“My first thought is that I am not reading anything, as I’ve been so busy getting my class online. But that’s not quite true. As we all strive to do social distancing, my nearly 5-year-old grandson Oliver and I are playing chess by correspondence. In this case, the correspondence is via photos of our chess boards sent back and forth as texts between his mom (my daughter) and myself. To help me create chess games that will help Oliver learn, I am using this book:Logical Chess: Move By Move: Every Move Explained New Algebraic Edition.’” 

Simar: “Oliver [Simar’s grandson] very much likes to move his knights. He enjoys how they can jump. But he took this a bit too far in this particular picture. It turns out that Oliver’s white king's knight is not in a legal position. His mom referred to this an ‘unsupervised’ move.” Photo by Ray Simar.


BRIDGET GORMAN, dean of undergraduates, professor of sociology

“I wish I had time for fun reading. It's been a while since I've been able to do that. Right now, it's all work-related. Scientific articles on COVID, higher education pieces on responses to COVID.  It's all COVID, while trying to squeeze in reading for my sociology graduate students and their research projects (which need my feedback).  

Whenever I get some free time back, I'll definitely turn to light-and-fluffy fiction reading. Sounds lovely.”

MOSHE VARDI, university professor of computational engineering

“This is a ‘good’ time to go back and read THE epidemic classic.

‘The Plague’ is a novel by Albert Camus, published in 1947, that tells the story of a bubonic plague ravaging the French Algerian city of Oran. Though the novel is placed in the 1940s, it is based on a cholera epidemic that devastated Oran in 1849. The struggle against the plague has been described as ;undramatic and stubborn.’ I find it a good metaphor for the current non-drama of resisting COVID-19 by merely working from home and spending our days lost in ‘Zoomspace.’”

ALDEN SAJOR MARTE-WOOD, professor of English

“Now that I’ve found some sense of a daily rhythm again, I’m returning to material for a research project that I’m co-authoring with a friend on Filipino content moderators. Working my way through that pile of reading, I’m now almost finished with Sarah T. Roberts’ cutting-edge study, ‘Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media.’ It’s a sobering look into the new types of digital work that go into keeping our social networks free from disturbing content. While Roberts’ book covers many different aspects of what she calls ‘commercial content moderation,’ I’m finding the chapters specifically on the Philippines to be particularly helpful to my thinking. 

Many folks have never even considered that human beings, not sophisticated data algorithms, are largely responsible for reviewing and deleting flagged material on our social media platforms. ‘Behind the Screen’ provides a profound ethnographic proximity to the emotionally draining and psychologically damaging affective labor performed primarily by workers based in the Global South. 

Reading this book in the midst of this current pandemic has forced me to contend with my own national and class privileges on this side of the great digital divide, since my ability to shelter in place and still stay connected with loved ones via social media utterly depends on the types of invisible work that Roberts’ book so critically renders visible. Highly recommended!” 

MATTHEW BENNETT, associate professor of biosciences

“I’m reading ‘The Age of Wonder’ by Richard Holmes. I love reading about the history of science, and this book is right up my alley. It describes how 18th-century culture influenced science and exploration, and how the resulting discoveries set the stage for the modern era.”

ANNE CHAO, lecturer in history

“I am a historian and am working on a book about the life of the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Chen Duxiu. To that end I am currently reading up on his interaction with Trotsky, and on the dispute between Stalin and Trotsky that ended up sacrificing the lives of many Chinese Communists. So one of the books I am now reading for this is ‘Prophets Unarmed: Chinese Trotskyists in Revolution, War, Jail and the Return from Limbo,’ edited by Gregor Benton. 

For my guilty pleasure, and when I just want to relax and let my mind wander, I turn to whodunits, and Louise Penny is one of my favorite detective novelists. She blends humor, poetry, philosophy into an old-fashioned detective story.” 

DAVID LEEBRON, university president

“Like many, I’ve decided to reread parts of a book about an epidemic, in this case Albert Camus’ ‘The Plague,’ except I am trying to read it in French. I was drawn to it as an opportunity to see [both] how much French I can remember, and its resonance with our times. Although the plague serves as a kind of metaphor for Camus, it’s also true that our current pandemic will cause us to gain many insights on our society. I hope we’ll use those insights to improve the lives of many in the future.

Two books I am trying to finish up: Matthias Henze’s ‘Mind the Gap: How the Jewish Writings between the Old and New Testament Help Us Understand Jesus’ and Caleb McDaniel’s ‘Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America.’ 

And then on my aspiration list are the novel ‘The Resisters’ by Gish Jen and ‘Lot,’ a collection of stories based in Houston by Bryan Washington who is currently a lecturer in English at Rice. ‘The Resisters’ interests me in part because one of the vital functions of literature is to imagine the future, and then perhaps do something about it.”

SARAH ELLENZWEIG, associate professor of English

“I’ve been turning to poetry lately because it feels good to lose myself in someone else’s head.  Novels also require more time than I have right now.  A favorite is Louise Gluck’s ‘October,’ a six part poem from her collection ‘Averno,’ published in 2006.  I find this poem haunting and raw yet somehow comforting in its beauty, its direct address, and its sensuous connection to the earth. The speaker is bewildered by her world, a feeling I think we can all relate to right now. In this first section, she can’t stop asking questions to which she knows there are no answers:

‘Is it winter again, is it cold again,

didn’t Frank just slip on the ice,

didn’t he heal, weren’t the spring seeds planted

didn’t the night end,

didn’t the melting ice

flood the narrow gutters

wasn’t my body

rescued, wasn’t it safe

didn’t the scar form, invisible

above the injury

terror and cold,

didn’t they just end, wasn’t the back garden

harrowed and planted–

I remember how the earth felt, red and dense,

in stiff rows, weren’t the seeds planted,

didn’t vines climb the south wall

I can’t hear your voice

for the wind’s cries, whistling over the bare ground

I no longer care

what sound it makes

when I was silenced, when did it first seem

pointless to describe that sound

what it sounds like can’t change what it is–

didn’t the night end, wasn’t the earth

safe when it was planted

didn’t we plant the seeds,

weren’t we necessary to the earth,

the vines, were they harvested?’”

These submission excerpts have been edited for conciseness and clarity.

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